MOX, High Flyer, Aerial (copy) (copy) (copy)

An aerial view of the mothballed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which is located at the Savannah River Site.

In May 2018, a joint recommendation was made to rekindle the production of plutonium pits: cores or triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons.

The pits would be produced in two states, South Carolina and New Mexico, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense together counseled. It's been pitched as a tandem, resilient approach, one that would offer both flexibility and results.

By 2030, at least 50 pits per year would be made at the Savannah River Site. The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility – a multibillion-dollar, never-completed nuclear fuel plant at SRS – would be repurposed and renovated for that very reason. And in New Mexico, at Los Alamos National Lab, a plutonium hub near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, 30 pits per year would be pumped out by the same decade-away deadline.

At the Nuclear Modernization Seminar in McLean, Virginia, this month, Charles Verdon, a top weapons expert at the NNSA, spoke to the Aiken Standard about the 80-pits-per-year requirement, which is laid out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading Pentagon policy document. 

Verdon, who leads a team responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons, said this when asked why 80 pits were needed and why people should subscribe to the thought process.

"So, again, when we tried to estimate the future, which you always have to put some uncertainty in there, but when we tried to look at the future, one of our major goals – both for ourselves and the military – is to improve the safety and the security of the warheads.

Some of the existing pits we have don't lend themselves to that. They were designed for a different time, a different era. They had a different mission. So they aren't necessarily optimal. They limit what safety and security improvements we can put into the future stockpile.

The other, as I said, is this issue of aging, that since plutonium is radioactive, it is changing in time. There is concern that over time, they will change in a way that could be adverse. Now, that is a lot of work and scientific research looking into that, but it could take decades to resolve that, and the problem is: If you got out there decades, and you find out it's not optimal, you're left with what do you do then?

So that's why we're saying it's a prudent approach, to identify the number 'no fewer than 80.' Because our analysis shows us that that gives us this methodical way of slowly over time replacing the age or taking the older pits out of the stockpile and replacing them with new."

Peter Fanta, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, put it more succinctly: "Want to know where 80 pits per year came from? It's math. Alright? It's really simple math. Divide 80 per year by the number of active warheads we have – last time it was unclassified it was just under 4,000 – and you get a timeframe."

Nuclear watchers, environmentalists, arms control experts and critics, more generally, are less sanguine. They have collectively questioned the need for more pits, let alone the recommended volume: 80 per year.

"They keep coming up with this number, 80, and I don't know where they get this from," Tom Clements, the director of Savannah River Site Watch, has said. "They haven't justified it."

Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at Arms Control Association, has described the National Nuclear Security Administration's pit production goals as "unnecessary and unexecutable."

"A report released earlier this year by the Institute for Defense Analyses found 'no historical precedent' for creating an 80-pit-per-year capability by 2030," Reif said in an exchange with the Aiken Standard. "In other words, the goal is a fantasy."

The last place pits were produced en masse – the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado – was raided by the FBI, and a slate of charges followed.

The NNSA is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. The semiautonomous agency already operates at the Savannah River Site.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin